Since releasing her second album with Artist Spotlight alumni Ohmme, which she formed with Sima Cunningham in 2014, in June of last year, Macie Stewart has been involved in an impressively wide range of projects. She contributed to the debut solo album by Liam Kazar, her bandmate in the hip-hop group Kids These Days and later Marrow, as well as claire rousay’s a softer focus, in which she played violin with her duo with cellist Lia Kohl. Before that, you might have heard their playing in records such as V.V. Lightbody’s Make a Shrine or Burn It, SZA’s CTRL, and Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake and Forever Turned Around. Between all their collaborations, the Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist took the time to record her debut solo album, Mouth Full of Glass, which arrives this Friday via Orindal. On its own but especially in the context of their collaborative work – Stewart also comprises one-third of the improvised act the Few and performs in Ken Vandermark’s ensemble Marker – the beautifully introspective LP feels like a quiet but necessary reckoning with the self: from the moment she embraces the act of truth-telling on opener ‘Finally’, she charts an effervescent path toward it through lush arrangements, vivid, dreamlike images, and evocative songwriting, weaving it all together in an attempt to cast out the darkness with each slow, tentative move.
We caught up with Macie Stewart for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about some of her earliest musical memories, the process of making Mouth Full of Glass, and more.
Has the past year felt especially busy for you, or not more so than usual?
It’s felt busy in a strange way. My typical level of busyness is like playing shows or going to sessions, but because that wasn’t possible, this past year was busy but more in a self-driven way, where I had a lot of recording projects but it was all in my house. So I wasn’t really leaving anywhere, I was just recording in my bedroom or in my office space that I have now. I was happy to be able to at least connect with people on a recording level like that since we weren’t able to actually see each other in person or see each other play. Music has always been my way of connecting with other people and feels like the easiest way that I can communicate with people, and so having this recording capability, even if I wasn’t in a room with someone, being able to hear their songs and contribute something to it felt very comforting to me in this last year. Because it was kind of a way of being close to people when you couldn’t really be close to them. And now that live shows are coming back in some capacity and there are some recording sessions again, I’m trying to wrap my head around that kind of busyness after I got used to this other kind.
During that time, did that also mean focusing on writing more as well as recording?
Yeah, definitely. And aside from just writing, doing other things that kind of helped my creativity, like trying to draw more or do more creative projects with my hands, rather than just writing music or practicing. I did a lot of drawing and tried to pick up embroidery and sculpting in the last year [laughs] – not very successfully, but I feel like all of it feeds on each other. You know, different creative pursuits kind of put your brain in a different place so that you can create more effectively in all of these different realms.
What appealed to you about taking up other activities like drawing?
Drawing – and cooking too, I feel similarly about cooking as a creative venture – I like that it’s just working with your hands. It’s something tangible, and you can feel what you’re making. [laughs] Sometimes when you’re writing, you’re not actively looking at what you’re creating or holding what you’re creating, so there’s a satisfaction in making something and being able to touch it with your hands. It’s kind of a similar feeling when you’re playing an instrument as well.
When I asked Liam about how he looks back on his time in Kids These Days, he told me that he doesn’t think of it so much in terms of the music that you made as the experience of learning how to be in a band and the excitement that came with that. Do you feel a similar way?
I think I do feel a similar way. I look back on that time as – it all feels like such a blur. [laughs] It was like straight out of high school, and kind of jumping into this – it was the first time I had deterred from my planned path, which was going to school for classical piano. And I think that that act of being like, “I’m actually not going to college, I’m going to do this thing,” I think that was a really big pivot point in my life, of just making a choice for my own life rather than the plans of people that were around me, or like my parents, teachers, things like that. And so yeah, I agree with Liam, because it definitely was an experience, working with that many people, collaborating with that many people, and being on the road 24/7 as a formative 18-year-old. I think it was a huge learning experience and I am definitely grateful for that, especially as my career now definitely involves touring to a large extent. I think I learned a lot from that band and a lot of things that are good to do and a lot of things that are really not that great to do while you’re on tour. [laughs] And I feel like that was such a necessary learning experience to have because it definitely feeds into how I move forward in life.
You said that it all kind of felt like a blur. Do you mind sharing some early musical memories, not necessarily attached to that project, that have stuck with you in a meaningful way?
Yeah, I was just thinking about one the other day. I used to play a lot of Irish music with this group called the Academy of Irish Music, and they were out of the Irish-American Heritage Centre in Chicago. And I went there from when I was probably like 11 to 15 or so and we would play a lot of gigs, and I was playing Irish fiddle in that group. But the person who was the mentor and the founder of the group, Noel Rice, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago, he would encourage us to write these pieces with all of these tunes that we were playing. And I didn’t realize that at the time, but I was just looking back at it now and thinking about how awesome it was to be given guidance and a safe space to compose in real time. Like, we were playing all of this music, and he was like, “As a group you all have to figure out how to move from this to this tune and they’re two completely different things, but let’s figure out a transition.” And so we were improvising and composing without even really realizing it, and now that’s a huge part of how I make music, of how I compose and write things, is kind of figuring it out in real time and thinking about those transitions and how it will work with someone else playing.
So that’s a musical memory that sticks really firmly in my brain because it was really foundational in a way that I had no idea until recently. And then a fun foundational memory is playing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and getting a high five from George Clinton on stage. I think that was like the peak of my career. [laughter]
Yeah. They were just playing in Chicago and I think that’s why that memory came to mind.
How about the first memory, how did that come to mind?
I think because I’ve been doing a lot of improvised music in the last seven years of my life, and that’s become a huge part of my identity and a huge part of how I like to move throughout the world creatively. And I think in this last year when I’ve been doing a lot more string arranging and I’ve been doing a lot more composing – I composed music for a film with my friend Quinn Tsan this year as well – and I was thinking about my process because I never thought about it before; I just kind of acted intuitively but didn’t reflect on my process. And I was thinking about it a lot in quarantine because I was working on it a lot, and that was kind of how that memory came up, because I was like, “When did I first start writing instrumental music?” And it all came from improvising, both improvising with that Irish group and also, when I was younger I had to practice piano a lot and my mom would make me sit at the piano for two hours, whether or not I was doing what I was supposed to do. So I would just improvise pieces to get around practicing what I was supposed to be practicing.
How do you think being raised in a musical household has shaped you as an artist? You talked before about that being a pivotal point where you started forming more of your own musical identity, but did you feel an urge early on either to step away from music or to do your own thing within it?
I don’t think I ever had an urge to step away from music. When I was really little, I was just obsessed with making things. I loved playing, but I really loved making pieces – when I was like 11 I wrote a piece for my string orchestra that I was in [laughs], I started writing songs when I was like 12 or 13. And I think that growing up in a musical household was really helpful because my parents both listened to – I didn’t realize how lucky I was, but my parents both listened to really awesome music, so I was exposed to a lot of different things from a young age that a lot of my peers weren’t exposed to. And even though my parents were very strict with me and I didn’t really get to do a lot outside of music, I feel like I was able to see a life for myself in music because my mom’s a musician as well. And it just made it seem possible, I think, growing up in my household, and none of my creative pursuits were ever really looked down upon. My parents were maybe nervous because they knew what it was like to live as a musician, and how much work it really is, and how it’s not necessarily the most stable career path, but they were very supportive. Not a lot of people have that, and I’m grateful to my parents for that.
What kinds of music did you gravitate to at the time that didn’t come so much from your family?
When I got into high school, my friends started making me mix CDs and things like that, and I got really into David Bowie, so much so that I like Limewired his entire discography. [laughs] That, and listening to a lot more jazz stuff because I had a lot of friends who were really into jazz, and I didn’t really know very much about it, so I started getting into that in high school a little bit more, and some more electronic music. My parents weren’t listening to hip hop, but I definitely got into that in high school too.
You’ve talked a bit about why you like working with other musicians, but I was wondering when you find collaborating with others most enjoyable.
I think that I gravitate to working with other people all the time; it’s more about when I gravitate to working alone. Which, I think when I need to work alone, it’s because I’m overstimulated. I need to check back in with myself. I feel like the solo project that I just made is because I was a little bit overwhelmed and I needed to check in with myself to see how I was feeling. So I think it’s more my regular state to collaborate with people, and working alone comes when I need to go in, you know.
Communication and aloneness are themes on Mouth Full of Glass in a way, too. You alluded to starting work on the album about a year before the pandemic, but can you elaborate on why this felt like the right time to focus on your solo project?
I’d been on the road with Ohmme for like three years straight at that point – I mean, we had been touring for longer, but it was pretty much non-stop. And I had also been touring with other projects when I wasn’t on the road with Ohmme, so I basically was never home and I was floating a lot, doing a lot of projects with other people and just taking work without thinking about how much energy I had to spend on it. I think initially I started writing music that didn’t feel like Ohmme stuff, and it also felt like I needed to put my voice into a thing so that I could hear it, if that makes sense. And then Ohmme started working on our record and then we recorded our record, and then I kind of stopped working on my solo project because it just felt like there wasn’t time and I wasn’t in a headspace to finish it.
But when quarantine happened, I wrote a few more songs – I was spiraling into a not great place before the pandemic, and then the pandemic kind of solidified that for me. Maybe five months in, I was like, I should probably record some of these things because I finally got a recording interface at my house, which I’d never had one before, and just started working on these songs and finishing them up. And it felt like an extension of that headspace that I was in before, but flipped on its head. Whereas before when I started writing the project I was craving alone time, when I finished the record, I had gotten that space and gotten that alone time but it was not necessarily by choice. It was forced upon all of us and forced upon me, but it also felt necessary because it was something that I wanted, so I was trying to explore that. It felt like a natural conclusion to that songwriting and recording process.
You used the word “voice”, and I was wondering, during that process, was that something you thought about at all? Your voice in a musical sense, or what you wanted to say?
No, I didn’t really. [laughs] I think when I write, I’m just writing, and then when it’s done, I can look back and see what that was. The thing that I knew was that I wanted it to be instruments that I could play and things that I could do on my own – except for saxophone, I can’t play the saxophone, and I really wanted saxophone [‘Garter Snake’ features saxophone from Sen Morimoto]. [laughs] But that was my goal with the project, was like, “What tools do I have, and how can I best put them to practice in this project?”
I think it’s interesting that the record starts with ‘Finally’ because it does feel like a point of conclusion, thematically. Did that come after a period of reflection?
I think it was after a period of reflection and just realizing that I had not really been telling the truth to myself about how I was feeling in a lot of different situations. And yeah, it does feel like a conclusive song, but at the same time I really wanted to put it up top, because it’s about exploring what the truth actually is, what you’re actually feeling. For me, it was about these things that I might not be so proud of and trying to have grace with myself.
The next song on the album, ‘Garter Snake’, seems to come from that realization and explores those feelings more directly. I was wondering why you chose those three words in particular in the song – “new, alone, and awake” – to describe your headspace, and why you felt like the garter snake was a fitting metaphor for that.
I don’t know if other people feel this way, but I feel like I enter new periods of consciousness every few years or so. Sometimes I’m like, “I still feel the same as I did a year ago,” or, “Wow, two years ago, that was a completely different version of me.” I’m always fascinated with the idea of rebirth and shedding old layers of skin and trying to be better all the time. Trying to find new versions of yourself that serve you and the people around you better. And so the garter snake metaphor felt particularly apt for that because they shed their skin and kind of move on throughout their life.
But also, what I liked about that for that song – on the theme of truth-telling, I was definitely feeling like a liar to myself. And I think snakes often represent deception, but at the same time, the garter snake is like the sweetest, cutest one. [laughs] It’s harmless even though it’s really scary, and I liked that metaphor because even though I feel like the worst person in the world right now and I’m awful in all aspects, I know that it’s temporary and you move throughout it. And what seems so dark and menacing in this like [lifts hand in front of face] immediate future is not actually the larger picture. I also had just come out of two very intense relationships, one being an eight-year-long relationship, and so the “new, alone, and awake” part was very… I was trying to do better going forward. [laughs]
Why do you think you’re fascinated with the idea of rebirth?
I don’t know, I always want to be someone better… or someone else, sometimes. [laughs] I like myself, but I have always had a fascination with being someone else, or what would it feel like to embody all of these different things. I mean, even with the Ohmme record, that record’s called Fantasize Your Ghost – that line came from imagining all the different lives that you will have lived by the time you die. Who will you have been, and what things will stick, and what things won’t? And I think maybe it comes from – I did a lot of theatre when I was younger, and I played The Sims a lot, where, you know, you can live a bunch of different lives and you can enter the Rosebud cheat code and get millions of dollars. So it’s always just been fascinating, I love imagining those kinds of things. And sometimes that line gets a little blurred for me with reality and fantasy, of like, what can you actually achieve and what is maybe not possible.
Could you talk a bit about the significance of the album title in the context of the themes we’ve discussed?
The album title actually came from a dream that I had where I was trying to tell somebody something and shards of glass kept appearing in my mouth. [laughs] And like, falling on the floor, and it didn’t hurt, but I couldn’t get what I wanted to say out to the person, and it felt really urgent. It was very vivid, and I don’t often have vivid dreams, but this one struck me particularly because I could picture all of it and I could feel all of it, even though it wasn’t physically painful. It’s like embedded in there. I ended up kind of improvising [the title track], that was one of the last ones that I wrote for the record, and it was kind of written about that dream and about the feeling of not being able to explain exactly what you’re feeling to someone. Being afraid that they won’t understand if you do, and also the feeling of kind of breaking your own heart. [laughs] I mean, it seems kind of dark, but also it isn’t, because there’s always an element of, you know, when you’re not able to do this one thing, there’s always another way. And I think that’s why at the end of the song, it builds into something a little more warm and inviting and bright, because it’s not all dark. It feels dark sometimes, but there is always an element of light that can come through.
Where do you think that light comes from?
It’s probably different for everyone, but I know for me it was realizing I could still create things; I still had family and friends that love me and that I love. There’s always love to be found somewhere, and there’s always creativity to be found somewhere.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Macie Stewart’s Mouth Full of Glass is out September 24 via Orindal.